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Quake Alerts No Substitute for Resilient Buildings, Communities, Mexico Scientists Say


FILE - Soldiers remove debris from a partly collapsed municipal building felled by a massive earthquake in Juchitan, Oaxaca state, Mexico, Sept. 8, 2017.

Expanding Mexico's early-warning system and speeding up its alerts could save more lives when earthquakes strike, but making buildings quakeproof and preparing communities better are the best ways to protect people, scientists said Tuesday.

Securing enough funds to maintain and run the infrastructure underpinning the SASMEX early-warning system is also crucial, said the lead author of a study on its performance, after a chunk of the system was knocked out by a recent storm.

"We're all enamored by the technology ... but we cannot forget the social aspect of early-warning systems," said Gerardo Suarez, geophysics professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM).

"There is no alert that substitutes [for] the prudent measures of building properly, having good regulations for construction, and also civil protection," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

In a paper published in the journal Seismological Research Letters, scientists described how the SASMEX system uses algorithms to analyze seismic waves and determine the size of an earthquake.

When an 8.1 magnitude quake hit southern Mexico on September 7, 2017, the system gave the capital nearly two minutes' warning.

The earthquake left more than 100 dead and millions in need of aid in the poor states of Oaxaca and Chiapas.

However, on September 19, Mexico City's 21 million people had only a few seconds' notice of a 7.1 magnitude tremor that struck closer in nearby Morelos, killing more than 330 and damaging 11,000 homes in the capital and surrounding states.

New algorithms being developed by the nonprofit Seismic Instrumentation and Record Center (CIRES), which runs the early-warning system, would have enabled alerts to be issued up to 10 seconds earlier in that situation, the researchers found.

FILE - A woman walks past debris of a house damaged by an earthquake in Huixtla, in Chiapas state, Mexico, June 14, 2017.
FILE - A woman walks past debris of a house damaged by an earthquake in Huixtla, in Chiapas state, Mexico, June 14, 2017.

Expanding the system to areas such as quake-prone Chiapas, Mexico's southernmost state, would also help make communities safer, said Suarez.

Quake drills

Buildings, including homes, need to be constructed so they can better withstand tremors, with construction adapted to various soil types, particularly in the capital, whose soft lake-bed foundation can amplify the impact of quakes, said Suarez.

Also key are civil protection measures including regular drills so people know what to do when an alarm sounds, said Suarez, a technical consultant for the Mexico City government.

Alerts in the capital are broadcast via street sirens, but other places like Oaxaca and Acapulco use radio receivers and television and radio stations to spread SASMEX warnings, which are also sent to schools, the emergency services and local governments.

Built in the years following the devastating 1985 Mexico City earthquake that killed more than 5,000, the early-warning system now includes nearly 100 monitoring stations across the most seismically active parts of southern and central Mexico.

Suarez said the recent outage of a SASMEX telecoms tower in Oaxaca after a storm flagged the need to use multiple ways to communicate data gleaned from the system's sensors.

He also pointed to the importance of ensuring CIRES has sufficient funding to keep the network functioning properly.

CIRES said in a statement on its website that a combination of storm damage, a lack of maintenance and funding shortfalls threatened its ability to alert people to quakes.

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